Good Friday: The Day Lincoln Died


01 Gardner Lincoln fatal look

     Today is the day that Lincoln died. It was on April 14, 1865—another Good Friday to be precise—that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was murdered in cold blood.  Young Mary Brennan, an Irish immigrant only recently arrived to our shores, remembered well that dreadful day for the rest of her life.  A devout Catholic, she, like many a Protestant of the day, regarded Good Friday, the day Christ died, as a solemn holy day and one not to be commemorated by going out the theater.  “He never would have died,” she would often say, ”had he not gone to see a play on Good Friday.”  Great grandmother was a font of such sayings and superstitions, she was, and her many descendants can still recite one or another of her sayings at will.

Another political commentary on Secession
A political cartoon from the time of the Civil War, showing John Bull (England) and Napoleon Bonaparte (France) waiting in the background for the US to be destroyed.

     But Abraham Lincoln, never a “technical Christian,” had ample reason to celebrate that Friday, April 14 so many years ago.  Robert E. Lee and his army had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant scarcely a week before and that very morning the general was delivering his report to the President and Cabinet in person.  For the first time in four years, Lincoln, who frequently suffered from “melancholy” seemed uncommonly hopeful, now that the end of the Rebellion was in sight.  Lincoln could at last look ahead to the future, to peace and to the task of rebuilding a nation torn apart by a fratricidal conflict.

pp Lincoln and Cabinet Emancipation Proc.
Lincoln and his Cabinet earlier in the war. Their last meeting was on the day he died, April 14, when he told them of his “usual dream.”

     As his Cabinet chatted before the official beginning of the meeting, Lincoln also told them that Friday about the “usual dream” he had had only the night before.  He explained that before every major event of the war he had dreamed the same dream: of a ship sailing towards a distant shore.  It always portended important war news.  Lincoln, raised on presentments, omens and prophetic dreams, believed that this latest portent was a sign of something momentous about to happen.

Uncle Billy & Uncle Joe

  Cabinet met, Lincoln was expecting news from Sherman in North Carolina, where “Uncle Billy” had run to ground the once proud Confederate Army of Tennessee, now commanded by “Uncle Joe” Johnston.  Johnston’s force was but a hollow shell of what it had once been, but the proud Rebels, barefoot and in rags, could still fight like wildcats—albeit cornered wildcats.  Lincoln hoped to hear that Johnston too had surrendered, marking the end of organized resistance.  Surely the “usual dream” portended this, thought Lincoln.

     Later that day, as Lincoln and his wife readied for the theater, the President was in an uncommonly optimistic mood, not realizing the prophetic dream portended not good news on Good Friday, but ill.  For even as they dressed for the night, across town a band of conspirators were also preparing for the night—but their performance would end in death and mayhem.

     Much has been written about that day and about the conspirators led by John Wilkes Booth; yet, to this day there is no certainty as to how deeply the Booth Conspiracy to do away with Lincoln and his Cabinet ran.  To be sure, many were arrested and most of the leading conspirators executed.  But Mary Lincoln, for one, had her suspicions that there were others involved who got away—including some high placed in the Lincoln administration.  Mrs. Grant too, had had a terrifying incident that day that lead her to believe not all the culprits had been caught.  But historians hate loose ends and the strands of evidence pointing to a broader conspiracy lie moldering in archives and museums little looked at or considered. Still, the truth may still be out there.

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth, actor, Rebel spy and leader of the conspiracy to murder Lincoln

     What is proven about the events of Good Friday, April 14, is tragic enough, however.  Just as Lincoln’s ship of state was about to reach that far and distant shore of peace, the captain—Lincoln—was cut down.  How different our history would have been had Lincoln survived to oversee the peace as he had the war!  We can be sure that the “Better Angels of our Nature” would have thrived under his leadership and the postwar darkness and violence, and the enduring aftermath of meanness and divisiveness that still dogs our nation to this day would have been greatly diminished, if not prevented entirely.

     Greatness is not to be measured in the number of bombs one drops or the number of innocents one kills; Lincoln did not rejoice in war and wished it brought to a speedy end.  No, what was great about Lincoln and Lincoln’s America was its struggle for equality, for social justice, and for the betterment of the average worker, not some aristocratic elite. The President who created land-grant universities to provide free college education, who redistributed millions of acres of land to any who would settle and till it, who fought and died for racial equality, and who sought to unite the nation from seas to sea with modern transportation: these and other social and economic programs were what truly made Lincoln great—not his leadership of a war that was forced on him by the Cotton Slaveocracy and other elites who benefitted from human bondage.  In the end, Lincoln paid for his achievements in human progress with his life.  As we commemorate Good Friday this April 14, this too should be borne in mind.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.






Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.







Ambrose Bierce: Spymaster?

Ambrose Bierce First Lt Don Swaim
Ambrose Bierce, best known as fiction writer, muckraking journalist and cynic, was also a soldier during the Civil War, among whose duties may have been that of spy-master.

Having spent several years researching, then writing and revising Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, the first tome devoted solely to noted American author Ambrose Bierce’s wartime service during the Civil War, one would think that I had uncovered all there was to know about the wartime career of Bierce.  One would think. But alas one would be wrong.

In truth, while I corrected many false impressions and incorrect assumptions created by some of his previous biographers, the reality is that the more I uncovered about Ambrose Bierce and his service during the Civil War, the more questions arose about him.  Some questions may only be of interest to those already devoted to Bierce and his work; other mysteries about Bierce’s life and career are fascinating quandaries which we may, or may not, some day find a solution.  One such quandary that tantalize this present author concerns  what facts may lie behind Ambrose Bierce’s career as a spy—something which he only mentioned in print once, yet is a subject I think many would greatly love to learn more abou.

I had come across reference to his espionage activities hidden in amongst the papers regarding his war service, deeply buried in the National Archives.  The reference to it is fleeting—a one sentence mention on one monthly muster card.  Prior to his brief service as spy, Bierce had done a brief stint as his brigade’s Provost Marshal—a role that entailed duties aa a general purpose MP and disciplinarian—and about this duty he shared considerably more to his readers in his postwar newspaper columns than he did his espionage work.

In the Western Theater of the war where Bierce served, the Provost Marshal’s department also sometimes doubled as a counter-espionage bureau, at least in Nashville.  But it doesn’t seem as though that espionage was part of Bierce’s cop duties when he was assigned to Provost Marshall duty in the early part of 1863..

An artist's impression of the life of a Civil War spy, after Harper's Weekly.
An artist’s impression of the life of a Civil War spy, after Harper’s Weekly.

From about mid-1863 on, Lt. Bierce served as his brigade’s topographical engineer—in effect its mapmaker.  Lest one think that a dull desk job, understand that during the Civil War topographical engineers were required to go out into the field and not only survey roads and physical features, but scout out enemy emplacements and fortifications as well, a task which frequently entailed infiltrating behind enemy lines.  It was a matter of some importance to commanders to know whether a strategic ford or bridge was held by the enemy and if so in what strength.  During the war, scout and spy were often interchangeable terms—and both could earn the soldier in question a summary execution by the opposing side–something which Bierce wrote about in his short stories.

Still, it seems clear that Lt. Bierce was not just penetrating behind enemy lines on mapping expeditions, but also coordinating a network of civilian spies, at least for a brief time.  I only recently stumbled across Bierce’s own brief reference to his espionage work in his rambling discussion, generally inaccurate, of naval firepower during the Spanish American War.  After pontificating how 12 inch guns couldn’t possibly be used at sea (wrong!) he then informs the readers of his column:

“In our Civil War, as in most wars, spies were employed by both sides and some made honorable records, each among his own people. I once had command of

The use of field or "spy" glasses were a much safer way of observing enemy forces, but not always as productive of results as going behind enemy lines.
The use of field or “spy” glasses were a much safer way of observing enemy forces, but not always as productive of results as going behind enemy lines.

about a dozen spies for some months—gave them their assignments, received and collated their reports and tried as hard as I could to believe them. I must say that they were about as scurvy a lot of imposters as could be found on Uncle Sam’s payroll (that was before the pension era) and I should have experienced a secret joy if they had been caught and hanged. But they were in an honorable calling—a calling in which the proportion of intelligent and conscientious workers is probably about the same as in other trades and professions.”

Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish radical Socialist turned American spymaster, was Lincoln's chief of intelligence. Unfortunately much of his information regarding the Rebel army was faulty.
Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish Socialist turned U.S. spymaster. He was Lincoln’s chief of intelligence. 

Bierce gave his San Francisco readers no chronology for his career as spy-master–but I can.

Based on his service record and what I have learned of his military career, his work as spymaster would have been in the late spring of 1863.  Beyond that, however, the five w’s of Bierce’s espionage activities remain an enigma.

Unlike some soldiers who wrote voluminous tomes on how they won the war, Bierce largely avoided such self-serving promotions and so, save for some fortuitous discovery, details about Lt. Ambrose Bierce’s work as espionage operative must remain an enduring enigma.



Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is now in print with the University of Tennessee Press.  For those interested in Bierce’s fictional works, I recommend the press’s three volume Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce which not only includes all his best known works but quite a few lesser known gems.


Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Based on extensive primary research, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife in now in hardcover via the University of Tennessee Press.


The Lincoln Assassination Plots, Part 1

Part 1: Conspirators, Indicted and Unindicted

In The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, I document President Lincoln’s fatalism, as well as several incidents that led him to believe he would not survive alive his term of office.  That much is historical fact.  Whether or not Lincoln did indeed experience genuine presentiments of his own death–and whether these dreams, portents, prophecies and other unexplained portents surrounding his life and death were truly supernatural is not susceptible to proof.  However, we do know that Lincoln possessed ample evidence that his life was in immanent danger on numerous occasions throughout his presidency.  John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln was only the last and most successful of several threats to Lincoln’s life.


As Lincoln was on his way to Washington to be inaugurated in February of 1861, for example, a plot was uncovered to murder the President as he traveled through Maryland.  It was well known that the city of Baltimore was a hotbed of Secessionism.

The Baltimore Riots
Baltimore was a hotbed of disloyalty and Secessionist sentiment in early 1861, as demonstrated by the Baltimore Riots, when a mob, partly composed of local militia, attacked Federal volunteers passing through town.

To foil the assassins, the President Elect was snuck through Baltimore in disguise. Unfortunately, the anti-Lincoln press had a field day with this fact and the anti-Lincoln press to ridicule him mercilessly.  As a result, Lincoln resolved never to shrink from the threat of assassination again.

Lincoln was ridiculed by the northern press for passing through Baltimore in disguise (Harpers)

Here Lincoln’s fatalism came into play.  For the remainder of his presidency, Lincoln’s attitude was that if it was his time to die, nothing could prevent it; if it was not, then no plot could possibly succeed.    Lincoln believed he would not die before he had accomplished the mission he was foreordained to carry out.

Although there were several instances when his life was in danger during the war, he ignored those threats.  Because these plots were not successful and the conspirators essentially escaped, details of them remain murky.

Of course, our main interest is with the one plot that did succeed.  Who were involved in the Booth plot? How far up in the Confederacy did it go?  Were members of the Lincoln Administration involved and why?

The accepted version of the Booth Conspiracy is that all members of the assassination ring were apprehended and brought to justice save one—Mrs. Surratt’s son.  John Surratt did indeed flee to Europe, where he spent some years as a member of the Swiss Guards, the Pope’s bodyguard, and eventually returned to the United States without suffering either death or imprisonment.  Were there others involved; and if so, who were they?

It has long been believed that there were conspirators who may have escaped justice–including, perhaps, the chief conspirator himself.

Immediately after his capture by Union forces, Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy was accused by the Republican administration that followed the death of   Lincoln of complicity in the assassination plot.  However, there was no paper trail leading to Davis being implicated in the plot.  The truth died with John Wilkes Booth on a farm in northern Virginia–perhaps–so no formal charges were ever brought against Davis.

Just because there was no hard evidence of the Booth Plot going higher up in the Rebel government, it does not follow that the Confederate government was not involved in the conspiracy.  Then, as now, governments used “plausible deniability” when conducting black operations which they knew the public might condemn.  Jefferson Davis may well have been unaware of the Booth Conspiracy; but the Confederate Secret Service was aware of it on a certain level, and perhaps even involved in its planning and execution. Unfortunately, when Richmond fell to the Yankees, the most sensitive documents of the Confederate espionage apparatus went up in flames.  Some documents were destroyed deliberately, others fell prey to the chaos of the abandonment of the city and in the subsequent Yankee occupation.

Yet there are hints that Confederate Intelligence was involved and that Booth was not the “lone assassin” historians portray him as.  It is known that Booth traveled to Canada and made contact there with Confederate spies.  There was an active Rebel covert network operating along the Canadian border and while there Booth received money to further his clandestine activities on behalf of the Confederacy.

The accepted line traditionally has been that the Confederate spy ring in Canada was just humoring an independent operator and simply gave him money in the hopes he might do a bit of mischief on his own.  Believe that if you will; but again bear in mind we are dealing with a clandestine organization where incriminating documents would have been foolish to leave behind.

Julia Dent Grant
Julia Grant also had presentiments of danger, as did her husband Ulysses.


There is evidence that at least one member of the Booth ring escaped undetected.  Mrs. Grant—who, along with her husband, also believed in presentiments as the Lincolns did.  In her memoirs, Julia describes how on the day of Lincoln’s assassination she was being shadowed by suspicious men.  One of them may have been Booth himself; but the other she never could identify.  Julia relates how the unknown conspirator even followed her and the General that day to the train station when they left on vacation.

General Grant

For reasons unknown, this conspirator did not fulfill his mission of killing General Grant—surely a “high value” target in the Lincoln administration—but he did send the couple an anonymous note admitting he was detailed to kill them that day.  The note never became part of the official record of the Booth assassination, so we have only Julia Grant’s word for it.

But why would Mrs. Grant lie about such a thing in her memoirs?  We have first hand testimony, therefore, that at least one conspirator who escaped the Federal manhunt.  There may have been more.

For more about Lincoln and the Booth Conspiracies, go to The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.  Also dealing with the Late Unpleasantness is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, an in depth look at the wartime experiences of a famous American author.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.
True accounts of uncanny events and unsolved mysteries of the Civil War, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War is available at better book stores everywhere.
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.